This post is reprinted from The Lab Report, the City of Asheville’s internal data program newsletter.
I manage the data and analytics program for the City of Asheville, but the truth is that I don’t care at all about data or analytics, or even about performance. What I care about is change. The chance to create positive change is what keeps me showing up every day. Perhaps that’s true of you as well.
Change is front and center in our community right now. The reason for that is awful, but it is good that we are looking at our problems and talking about how to address them. There is plenty of anger, but I also sense some hope that we can make progress, that the turmoil of the moment might help make that progress possible.
The last thing I want to do is say anything to erode that hope. But if we are to really succeed in changing things, we need to understand what we are up against.
I heard a story the other day about an interaction in the courthouse. Yellow dots had been placed throughout the courtroom to indicate where people could safely sit and still socially distance. A lawyer at the defense table noticed a yellow dot on a bench just two feet behind her – clearly a violation of the 6-foot standard. She pointed it out to someone nearby, not someone in authority, just another person working in the courtroom that day. The response: “Well, I guess they have to put them somewhere.”
That response has haunted me ever since. It haunts me because it represents the mechanism of the system’s inexorable drive to revert to normal. It wasn’t a declaration that we shouldn’t care about safety, or a refusal to question why people must pointlessly show up each day when nothing can happen with their cases. It was just a normal person’s automatic thought. An automatic thought that carried a powerful set of assumptions about what normal means.
We don’t have to put them somewhere. We can rethink the system. We can question our assumptions and inquire what is really important. We can, but we don’t. We fall prey to the need to just get things back to normal.
“Normal” is the gravity that ceaselessly works against any change to the system, and it works powerfully throughout the system because it works through all of us. The problem is what “normal” actually stands for here. It stands for a system designed to keep people of color at the margins and to create benefits for white people at their expense. It stands for white supremacy . And that system depends, not on the people we think of as white supremacists, but on all of us.
Take policing, since that’s the topic of the day. We all look forward to seeing what Chief Zack and APD will do to transform their culture and regain public trust. Our city, elected officials and the Chief himself have all acknowledged the need for change. Personally I am cheering for my colleagues there.
But their efforts are doomed if they have to do this on their own. Policing operates within a system. It is the same system that leads to our abysmal results in contracting with businesses owned by people of color. It is the same system that leads to our lack of diversity in hiring, and to the inequities in how we engage with our community. Those are ours to change. And if we are to do it, we must understand that the biggest barrier to change is not the resistance of those who disagree.
The biggest barrier is us. We are the system and we will be the gravity that pulls things back . And the way we will do that is through offhand, automatic thoughts and deeds. We just need to get this position filled now. We just need to get this done. We just need to put those stickers somewhere and move on.
So what does any of this have to do with the data program?
My plan for this newsletter was to do an introduction to Google Data Studio. That’s important and I’ll have it out to you soon. But the events in our community and across the country and the world make it important to remember that metrics and charts are irrelevant if they’re not in service to the right questions.
So you can expect to hear as much in this newsletter and in our trainings about asking the right questions as you will about data. Emma Olson [of Culture of Results at the NC Center for Health and Wellness] reminded us in our training last week that questions are the heart of the results-based accountability framework. Questions keep us focused on outcomes, which is important. But questions serve another purpose as well. They help us disrupt the inevitable pull toward the normal that will destroy not just our particular project or program, but everything we’re working toward as a city.
 I get that this language may feel inflammatory. If you feel that it is, please reach out. I would be happy to talk about why I use it, why I am convinced that it’s important to use it.
 Thanks to Kimberlee Archie for the words she long had in her signature: “The system is working as designed; we are the system; we must deconstruct and transform the system to work for all.” Those words have kept me thinking constantly about the roles we play in creating or resisting change.
In a conversation recently someone asked how to tell when you’re in a pivotal moment in history. I don’t recall how I responded at the time, but the question has continued to gnaw at me ever since.
What’s bothering me is that there’s a narrative hidden beneath the question, a story about how things change and the part individuals play. Such stories are important because they covertly shape our decisions about whether, when and how to act or speak on issues we care about.
All of us are familiar with the “hero narrative,” which tells us that change happens when an individual shows up at a critical moment and undertakes some particularly courageous act that changes the course of history. In this narrative, for example, civil rights happened because of heroes like Rosa Parks who, tired after a long day, suddenly became fed up with the discrimination and heroically remained seated for her rights. Because of her and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a handful of others who seized the moment and took heroic steps, everything changed.
David LaMotte challenges this narrative in his book, Worldchanging 101. As LaMotte points out, one problem with the narrative is that it is completely wrong. It ignores the years of preparation by hundreds of people, including Rosa Parks, and it misunderstands the quite careful and deliberate choices of time and place. Perhaps more importantly, the hero narrative undermines our sense of agency. It disempowers us because it requires that we wait for just the right moment and then heroically seize it. The result: we do nothing because we have no idea when the moment is and most of us are quite aware that we’re no heroes.
The narrative behind the pivotal moment is related, but also stands on its own. Let’s call it the “ripeness narrative”. It says that there are times that are “ripe” for change and we need to keep our eyes open so we know when to act. Once again, this is actually a very disempowering narrative – it’s the hero narrative without the hero. It again demands that we recognize the “right moment” for action. The subtext, of course, is that action is mostly pointless the rest of the time.
The LGBTQ movement provides an excellent example of how this narrative misses the mark. When same-sex marriage was recognized as legal by the Supreme Court in 2015, to many of us it felt like the change came out of the blue, that a dramatic shift occurred over just a few short years. There clearly had been a pivotal moment in there somewhere!
But look at the graphs of Gallup polling on attitudes toward gays and lesbians and toward same-sex marriage over time. Yes, something significant happened around 2011: the percentage of people supporting same-sex marriage exceeded that against. But it didn’t happen because of some dramatic reconfiguration of things in 2011. It was simply the crossing point determined by the slopes of the lines. Same-sex marriage saw support increase and opposition decrease fairly steadily over more than a decade, and in general attitudes toward gays and lesbians over more than two.
The real question is what determined the slopes of those lines?
In his recent book, How We Win, George Lakey contrasts the LGBTQ movement’s strategy following the conservative revolution of the 1980s with those of other movements on the left:
When Reagan faced a strike by the air-traffic controllers union, he fired the workers — 11,000 of them. It was a shot heard by all the movements in the United States. Organized labor went on the defensive, and so did other movements: women’s rights, civil rights, school reform, environmental. The goals of those movements changed: to hang on to previously achieved gains …
One big exception stands out in the defensive retreat of the left in the 1980s: the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transexual rights. … [E]ven while some homophobes talked about sending gay men to camps to isolate “the gay disease” of AIDS, the movement stepped up to confront Reagan and the medical-industrial complex.
After winning, LGBTQ people stayed on the offensive, demanding equal marriage, then equality in the military. More recently the push is equal access for trans people to public facilities like bathrooms.
The slopes of those lines were the result of steady efforts over decades to change the attitudes of people and institutions; there never was a pivotal moment. In fact, what appears to be a pivotal moment is a time when taking action is perhaps least important simply because the tipping point has already been reached and it really doesn’t make much difference whether you join in or not. It was probably far more important to pitch in when things looked bleak, as they did in the 1980s. As, in fact, they do now.
Which brings me back to the question that sparked this, how to tell when you’re in a pivotal moment. I suspect the question really being asked is something like: how do I know that my efforts matter?
I am privileged to work every day with amazing people, the questioner among them, people who pour their hearts into work that is very, very hard, and that often feels futile. How are we to keep hold of hope when despair is always tugging, to maintain enthusiasm in the face of repeated frustration? It’s hard and we need something to hang on to that assures us that it’s worth it, that shows us how the day in, day out work we do matters.
In other words, we need a story. It’s part of being human.
Unsurprisingly we tend to grasp at the stories that are close to hand, the ones regularly repeated in novels and in the media, in movies and in marketing. They’re easy stories that help us make sense of reality and see that it’s not just a mess.
In reality, though, reality is a mess. We need stories that somehow acknowledge this, but also give us both hope and a part to play, a part that doesn’t require supernatural abilities or an infallible sense of timing.
There is an instructive controversy happening right now around the New York Times’s 1619 Project, and especially Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay. A group of historians, led by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, submitted a letter to the New York Times challenging the project as having errors “of verifiable fact” and calling on the organization to publish a correction. The editors published the letter together with a detailed rebuttal.
Adam Serwer of the Atlantic explains that the conflict is actually not over facts, but is fundamentally one of competing narratives about American history:
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? …
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize.
The historians’ position is a version of the “progress narrative,” the idea that things inevitably get better and that right and justice win in the end. The best modern formulation is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. It’s a narrative that offers hope, although it can also be used to excuse individual inaction.
What’s worse, though, is that it can be easily twisted to discourage boldness in challenging the status quo. It is a classic response of white liberals in America to any attempt to really grapple with current-day racism: things are getting better, what is needed is patience, don’t get loud, don’t rock the boat. It is not really logical, but it allows us to avoid facing things that are truly ugly not just about this country’s past, but about its present. In other words, about ourselves.
Hannah-Jones’s counter-narrative provides a fascinating contrast. She doesn’t simply offer a darker vision of the past; her narrative offers a powerful role for those who have been oppressed by that past. She casts black people as the primary force for the development of democracy in America, “the perfecters of this democracy.”
It’s powerful, but is it true?
I think that’s the wrong question. Historical narrative is always created from a subset of the facts and artifacts available. It can be quite useful for understanding how change might have happened. It can illuminate and inspire. On the negative side, it can fail to fit the facts and in that sense be false. But it cannot be objectively true. Historical narratives are like models in economics: simplified versions of reality that try to illuminate the particular mechanisms that may have led to historical outcomes. They can have explanatory power and thus be useful guides to strategy in analogous circumstances, but they remain highly simplified fairy tales compared to the mess of reality.
But Hannah-Jones’ narrative is less an attempt to explain history and more a way to frame that history as bestowing a special role on African Americans. I could easily argue that it’s accurate. I can just as easily argue that it’s seriously incomplete. But if I see it as an inspiration and call to action, perhaps my best response is simply to applaud and then move on to seek my own narrative. I obviously can’t sign up for this one – not only am I not black, I’m a member of the privileged group that has been the source of oppression.
Which brings me back to the question. How do I tell if my work matters?
As should be obvious by now, I don’t know how to answer that question in an absolute sense. All I know is that each of us needs a story that tells us how the world as a whole works, and then places us as individuals within that larger narrative. This essay is an opportunity to try to articulate and share mine and, perhaps, give you some ideas for yours.
Mine draws from the conviction of King and Gandhi that we are called to participate in an essentially spiritual struggle, and that progress in the struggle requires understanding the world as a set of structures and systems that are created and maintained by people. The spiritual call is to dismantle systems and structures that are unjust and to replace them with just ones.
I suspect I differ somewhat from both King and Gandhi in that I’m not confident progress in the large is inevitable, although I hope for it. What my own spirituality tells me, though, is that progress in the small is always possible and that it matters deeply.
Because I personally draw from a Christian tradition, it’s natural for me to think in terms of Jesus’ kingdom of heaven (which he clearly implied was not something far off and after death, but a reality in the midst of our current reality). However, I have no need to impose that frame on anyone else. Another more secular way to put it might be that I see myself as a collaborator in helping my community fulfill its true identity, one that is naturally inclusive and equitable, interconnected and loving.
For me that is not an abstraction, and it is not something that happens at scale. It’s local and concrete. It always connects the systemic and structural with the personal and frames the bureaucratic processes of institutions as interactions in a relationship with individuals and with the community. And that’s a big part of what makes the work sustainable for me. Sometimes I get to see success and that is wonderful. But sometimes all I have is the opportunity to forge a real connection with a neighbor or a fellow worker. And that’s enough to carry me through to struggle again tomorrow.
I work for the City of Asheville, a formal governmental institution that operates within strictly defined geographical boundaries. It operates within functional boundaries as well, with responsibility for things like streets and garbage, water and zoning, public safety and community spaces.
The City obviously also has a role beyond the areas it strictly controls, such as housing and economic development. And, as the largest municipality in western North Carolina, it has influence outside its formal geographic boundaries as well.
Nevertheless, for the most part, its responsibilities lie within relatively well-defined lines. Which means of course that my job and those of my colleagues at the City are also defined or constrained in important ways by those same lines. This is a perfectly logical and reasonable way to divide up the work, albeit one that is generally confusing and irrelevant to the community we serve.
In fact, it can be worse than irrelevant and confusing. To us working in government the lines are convenient fictions that let us get our jobs done. But they can turn sinister if we begin to actually believe in them.
These artificial boundaries necessarily disrespect the continuity of the lives of those we serve. Our lines of convenience can become real obstacles and barriers for people who have no margin in their lives to handle the extra burden. And however exact the lines between jurisdictions, believing in them obscures the reality that these are organic spaces, spaces with an integrity that we may endanger when we only think in the categories of jurisdiction and control. Perhaps worst of all, artificial boundaries in both space and function create barriers for us in tackling the real complexities of the challenges we face.
Yet we still have to get our work done. How are we supposed to respect the integrity of spaces, the continuity of people’s lives, and the intertwining of multiple dimensions of challenge without violating legitimate restrictions on our actions or becoming completely overwhelmed trying to solve all of every problem?
There are a number of ways to come at that question, but I’m intrigued by one in particular that emerges from two stories I encountered in the last few months.
The most recent arose in a chat with Jim Blanton, the director of our county library system. He mentioned that the libraries have partnered with Homeward Bound to have a nearly full-time resource person work with the homeless community. Libraries are both a popular and a natural access point for resources for the homeless community and so the program makes perfect sense.
But it’s not obvious that a library would look at things that way. A natural boundaried approach might be to think more narrowly about the library’s mission and to assign the responsibility for these patrons elsewhere, to call in the police or some other agency. Instead, the Buncombe County libraries chose to define themselves as a place where all members of the community gain access to resources of all sorts, and then connected with partners who could help them realize that vision for this particular group of patrons.
As it happens, the second story also relates to homelessness. It came up in a conversation with Amy Cantrell, a local pastor and community advocate. A few years ago a woman named Janet Jones died of cold on the streets of Asheville. Amy powerfully described the way the community sat with what had happened, talked about it and about what they could do. They decided first to hold a public funeral. Homelessness is often treated as a public safety issue; they used a public funeral for a woman who died alone on the street to reframe it as a public health emergency.
They didn’t stop there. Rather than sitting in anger and pointing fingers (and as Amy says, “there’s a lot of fingers that could have been pointed and should”), they focused instead on a question: “We are one another’s closest community. What is it that’s within our power to do? How can we change this?” Their answer was the Homeless/Formerly Homeless Street Medic Team which carries out weekly street outreach, crisis preparation, and health fairs. I recently attended a meeting of healthcare providers and nonprofits where the Street Medic Teams were cited as one of the clear successes in community health in our area.
The common element in these two stories is a decision to think beyond lines of responsibility and jurisdiction by asking a simple question: What can we do? What is our part?
It’s easy to come up with objections, of course. For one, local governments, community groups and non-profits are already stretched thin. Doesn’t this just pile more work onto already over-burdened people?
Perhaps. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that both stories are about people finding a creative way to deal with issues that already touched them. The library needed to decide how best to interact with a particular group of library users. The homeless community was asking how to contend with a threat to its own members.
Clearly too this isn’t about taking full responsibility for every problem. In fact, asking “What is our part?” explicitly acknowledges that it is only a part. We are not taking ownership of the whole problem, but are simply exercising agency at the intersection of the problem and our domain. In fact, the act of doing so invites us to ask what other partners might be invited in or notified? The libraries connected with Homeward Bound. The Street Medic teams get training from and coordinate with health services and emergency personnel.
Another objection is that we are somehow giving those responsible a pass. But let’s be clear. Asking the question does not absolve responsible agencies of their responsibility. As Amy puts it, what it does is open up an imaginative space where we can discover truly creative solutions. In both these stories, by locating themselves within the larger system, thinking in terms of networks and spaces and systems, people came up with new solutions that helped address their particular challenges while bringing benefit to the broader community.
For me, perhaps the most challenging objection is that we are essentially forcing those who shouldn’t bear the responsibility in the first place to patch up and prop up a fundamentally broken system. In the case of homelessness, this is true even of the agencies that have jurisdiction. Homelessness is not caused by ineffective homeless assistance programs. Such programs may work well or badly, but they are contending with a problem created outside themselves.
Homelessness is most closely linked with the affordability of housing in the area and the availability of jobs that cover the cost of that housing. Housing costs and employment opportunities result from the interaction of local, state, and federal policy with the decisions of individual buyers and sellers, entrepreneurs, developers and investors. More broadly, it results from the way we choose to organize our society and world and the way we prioritize and approach the issues that arise.
We can’t solve homelessness without engaging all of these dimensions and levels and you can argue that prioritizing efforts like these allows society to avoid doing that.
The most obvious counter-argument is that it may realistically be the best we can do. At least these solutions make a difference in individual lives. Because of the Street Medic team, for example, someone this year or next has a chance to build a life that otherwise they might have lost.
But I think there’s a more important reason to take this perspective.
I wrote last year about rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy, asserting that democracy isn’t about voting or a particular “set of structures and procedures. Democracy is people doing democracy.” But what does that actually mean? I think these stories represent part of what it means: people and organizations claiming and exercising agency in the working of their community as a whole.
In his classic book Democracy in America  Alexis de Tocqueville attributes much of what is unique and powerful about American democracy to the peculiar civic conditions of small New England towns where “much artful care has been taken … to … disperse power in order to interest as many people as possible in public affairs.” One effect of such distribution of power is to engender a sense of agency, one reflected in a second uniquely American tendency observed by de Tocqueville:
Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools … Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.
While never true of all places, even early in our history, I suspect that both the reality and the mythology of this ethos, this idea that we can and should take our challenges and our opportunities into our own collective hands, rather than wait for a government or powerful individual to do it, are responsible for much of the dynamism of American democracy, a dynamism that I see as born of connection and a sense of agency.
It is a dynamism that has become seriously eroded in our own time.
We can’t simply return to the democracy of early 19th century New England towns, nor to the civic, religious and social community associations that helped carry this ethos through the middle of the twentieth century. We need to find a new way that can work in our twenty-first century reality, one that finds twenty-first century ways to claim agency and forge connections.
In a recent essay , Danielle Allen argues that rebuilding democracy requires “bridging ties” that bring ”diverse communities into positive relations while also individually forming personally valuable relationships across boundaries of difference.” I would submit that one of the most effective ways to build such ties, to rebuild social connectivity and the vital accompanying sense of agency is through work on shared challenges. I think the two stories I’ve referenced here offer two of many examples of what that can look like.
It might seem strange that one of the examples I cite is a government entity partnering with a non-profit, not the most innovative connection you might look for. But the choice is deliberate.
For one thing, while organizations can encourage or discourage collaboration, real creative agency within them is a function of individuals, and of course it is only with individuals that the bridging ties Allen talks about can be forged.
Equally importantly, the goal is not to replace formal organizations with grass-roots efforts, but to strengthen the entire ecosystem. Grassroots organizations are a vital part of that ecosystem, but so are governments and non-profits, media and private enterprises. We need to create bridging ties not just between different parts of the community, but between all those communities and the myriad organizations that collectively make our community function.
And that to me is at the heart of what it means to rebuild democracy. Rebuilding democracy means rebuilding its ability to function, rebuilding our ability to face challenges and make decisions in a way that is inclusive and grounded in the experience of every part of our community. And I suspect that accomplishing it is less a matter of policy or political organization than of shifting perspective by shifting the questions we ask. The right simple question at the right time is one of the most powerful tools there is.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Library of America, 2004). Originally published in French in 1835 and 1840.
Danielle Allen, ”Toward a Connected Society” in Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society, eds. Earl Lewis, Nancy Cantor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).
It’s hard to escape the incessant drama of the current moment these days, from the assaults on our institutions to the lives damaged or destroyed through incompetence or cruelty. It’s hard to think much beyond the immediate future, the next lawsuit, the next election, hard to think beyond resistance. But we need to. Our democracy is in grave danger, has been in grave danger for much longer than Trump has been president, and will not be fixed by a blue wave, an impeachment or anything else that can happen in the next few weeks, months, probably even years.
Please understand me: I am not saying that resistance is not necessary, that calling senators, filing lawsuits, protesting, organizing, registering people, voting and getting others out to vote aren’t vital things to be doing right now. They are.
But we need to do more than resist. We need to build or, rather, rebuild. We need to rebuild and reinvent a democracy that can withstand the assaults made possible by modern technology, modern media, and the erosion of the norms that kept us more or less in the road for a couple of centuries. A road that bypassed far too many of us, of course, which is something else our rebuilt democracy must address this time.
But we are in crisis and it is so tempting to prioritize resistance, to focus on stopping the attack, to just get through this crisis before we try to build.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. These attacks are not independent of the social and political structures that allow the attackers to operate. In fact, the attackers themselves are arguably as much a consequence of our power structure and dynamics as a cause of them. Even if we manage to win against those currently in power, we will discover that others are waiting in the wings to take advantage of those same structures, that we will have a new set of powerful people suddenly reluctant to give up the tools that allow them to maintain that power. It will likely be done by good people with the best of intentions in the name of expediency, but it will be done and things will not be better.
We need to look beyond resistance to what Mahatma Gandhi called constructive program . I think of it simply as building the infrastructure of a just democracy.
While Gandhi wrote far less about constructive program than he did about nonviolent resistance, he spoke of it often and frequently implied that it was the more vital of the two. He knew that when you seek to overthrow an oppressive regime, if you do nothing to change its supporting structures, success just means swapping one set of oppressors for another.
Constructive program is about building new structures that can replace those of the current oppressive regime, structures that support justice in the same way that the current ones support injustice. I believe that this, rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy, is one of our most important tasks right now.
By “infrastructure” I don’t mean voting machines or elections or money in politics. I mean everything that supports our ability to function as a democracy. That includes the government, but it also includes local and national media, advocacy organizations large and small, community groups, social media and other forms of civic activity. It includes the policies and technologies that regulate and support it all. Most vitally, it includes our habits and norms, all the things that govern how we actually practice democracy. The rebuilding must encompass all of this together because it is all of this, as a system, not just one or another individual thing, that is broken today.
What is Democracy?
If we are going to rebuild democracy, we should probably be sure we know just what it is we are trying to build. We do know what democracy is, don’t we? You would think so, after millennia of thinking and writing, experimenting with and arguing about whether and how democracy does, can or should work. We must know by now.
According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens, and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
I found myself arguing already at the first element.
My first reaction on reading Diamond’s definition was to dismiss it entirely and start over. On reflection, though, it’s not completely wrong. The elements are in the wrong order, and means get confounded with ends, but it seems fixable. Here is how I would reformulate it.
Democracy consists of four key elements:
Rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to everyone.
Protection of the human rights of everyone.
A political system that gives effective voice and representation to everyone in collective decision-making.
The active participation of the people in politics and civic life.
The changes aren’t large, but I think they are significant.
First, I’ve reordered the elements because I think they build on one another: each element is only feasible if it can assume those that come before. The first two, for example, are not themselves democracy, but they provide a vital foundation for it. Take rule of law. As soon as certain groups get to be exempted from some rules, we have laid the foundation for privileging the rights, voice or representation of one class over another. Similarly with human rights — ensuring that everyone without exception enjoys a certain basic set of rights puts critical limits on what the political system can do. Without those limits, the system eventually loses legitimacy for those whose rights are violated and breaks down.
I have also removed restrictions to “citizens.” There has long been a battle about whether the privileges and duties of democracy apply to everyone or just to a “deserving” subset. For me democracy must incorporate everyone who lives in our community, period. That is not to say that every mechanism is open to every person — it’s reasonable to restrict voting in elections to citizens, for example — but I believe the system itself must include ways to develop the habits of democracy for everyone in the community. More on that below.
The third significant change I’ve made is in the definition of the central element, the political system itself. To my mind, Diamond’s restriction of the role of the political system to “choosing and replacing the government through … elections” ignores almost everything that makes a democracy actually work. It focuses on one of the means and completely ignores the end, the very purpose of democracy. To me “rule of the people” has to be about giving the people voice and representation in the critical decisions that shape their community’s future.
With those changes, the definition seems to me a workable starting set of principles for a just democracy. All that remains is to figure out how to build one.
Democracy is a Doing
For me the clue is in the last element, the assertion that democracy requires the “active participation of the people in politics and civic life.” That statement forces a shift of focus from a static “system” to something more dynamic and organic. Democracy isn’t a set of structures and procedures. Democracy is people doing democracy — anything else is just a shell.
I like the way a friend put it:
“Democracy is a context in which we learn how to be citizens as well as a context in which we get things done.” — Daniel O. Snyder 
I believe we have largely lost this habit. To gain a democracy that is more than a shell, more than a perk for the privileged, we need to get it back, to create it anew, this time for all the people.
We can’t do this on the national level. While I have struggled to formulate why, that has been clear to me since I embarked on this work. Certainly we can share learning and resources, but the work itself is something we can only do locally. We must rebuild the habits of democracy from the ground up, person by person and community by community.
That’s the reason I get excited about Code for America brigades, local volunteer groups that use their tech and data skills to make their communities and local governments better. These and similar groups are building new habits of democracy. In a recent conversation, Denice Ross of New America Foundation called brigades a kind of “permanent civic infrastructure” in a local community. I think that is exactly right and this essay tries to articulate why that infrastructure is so important. Code for America brigades won’t save the day, of course, but they are one tiny, hopeful seed for the kind of communities I believe we can grow over the next few decades.
I began work on this post months ago and until the last few days still had no idea what it really wanted to be. It turns out to be a kind of compass I’ve built for myself, to keep myself on the path, a formulation of the principles that underlie and guide the work I feel called to do.
I hope too it can serve others as a call to action and as a reminder, both in the heat of the fight and in the dark of inevitable times of despair, that what we are doing is much more than resistance. We are laying the foundations of a new and better democracy.
While Gandhi frequently referred to constructive program, the only work specifically devoted to the topic was a short pamphlet written in 1941. With its focus on practices that were specific to the time and place and Gandhi’s spirituality — things like prohibition, personal celibacy, spinning of thread, the use of locally-made cloth, use of provincial languages, and integration of untouchables — it has not seemed particularly relevant to most practitioners of his better known non-violent program. However, the specific practices arise from underlying principles that very much apply to other places and times. I am deeply grateful to Dan Snyder (see next note) for his wisdom about this, and to the thesis of Prof. Allwyn Tellis.
Dan Snyder is a pastoral psychotherapist in Black Mountain, NC; he has also been a peace studies teacher and nonviolence trainer, and is the author of Quaker Witness as Sacrament, published by Pendle Hill. Conversations with Dan, as therapist, spiritual director and friend, have been a rich source of inspiration for my work and for my life.
In my first essay I noted that data and data-driven decision-making are transforming government and politics and that we must involve the local community to ensure that it builds us up rather than damages us. I suggested three efforts in support of this.
This essay starts to tackle the first: to foster a local culture that values data in driving policy decisions and expects decision-makers to share that data and to engage with impacted communities around it.
I want to linger awhile on the word culture. It’s easy to rush past that one without a lot of thought: of course we should build a culture that supports the premise of the essay. Moving on …
But seriously, why do we need to build a local culture? Why not simply demand that local institutions become more data-driven and community-centered? They can draw from a large and growing body of knowledge about best practices in open data, outcomes-focused performance management and community engagement.
If you have local institutions that are capable of doing that, by all means go for it. But in most places, including where I live, our institutions really don’t have that capacity. It must be created.
Easy to say. Really, really hard to do. Not because some people will resist. They will, of course, but that’s not the main problem. The biggest obstacle is that becoming inclusively and equitably data-driven turns out to require more than a willingness to do something differently; it requires the willingness to do everything differently. We have to let go what we “know” in favor of what the data tells us, listen to people and truths that challenge us and make us deeply uncomfortable, act before we feel ready because the data is clear, or hold back when we’re raring to go because we don’t actually know enough.
In other words, becoming deeply and inclusively data-driven requires a major change in the culture of our local institutions. Culture is critical because it is the only way to coordinate the actions of a large number of people who operate mostly independently. The alternative, trying to police everyone’s behavior, is extremely expensive and almost never works.
Here locally, both the County and the City will soon have new managers. Isn’t it their job to lead that change?
Real, deep, long-term change in a democratic society never comes by getting them to do it. That sort of change remains shallow and vulnerable until we accept that we are responsible, that we are a critical part of this, perhaps the critical part. Institutions that don’t have to be accountable to the community eventually won’t be. If we want to see sustained data-driven policy and decision-making in our community, we must accept our own responsibility for expecting it of our institutions. That shared sense of responsibility and shared expectation is the culture I’m talking about.
The next question, of course, is how? Culture isn’t something we can wish, decree or cajole into existence, especially not in a large, diverse community. How are we supposed to go about building it?
First, it’s worth noting that it’s already started, at least here in Asheville. I suspect we’re not alone. I have been surprised and impressed over the last couple years by how often activists and local community leaders talk about data, about the need to use data in their advocacy and solution-finding. These aren’t policy wonks and data geeks, they’re activists from Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, local homeless advocates, transportation activists, advocates for the elderly. The word is out. And, like it or not, local institutions are having to change to accommodate them.
That is precisely the kind of catalyst to institutional change that I’m talking about.
But can we take this even broader? Can we make data-driven culture popular? The question seems absurd. But I don’t think it is, and, in fact, I think we have an excellent tool to help answer it.
The Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework was developed by Mark Friedman around the turn of the century. Use of the framework has grown dramatically since the publication of his book, Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough. It has become a nationally accepted standard for effective data-driven decision-making that keeps things centered on the communities that are impacted.
The framework maintains a clear distinction between community indicators, which measure “the progress a community is making towards achieving community well-being,” and performance measures, which assess how well an organization or program performs for the specific customers who benefit from its services. Institutions are held accountable for their performance, but we always also attend to the impact of their programs on the broader community.
There is much depth to explore in RBA, but I think its power lies especially in its simplicity. To get at the most important performance measures for a program or service, RBA asks three simple questions:
How much did we do?
How well did we do it?
Is anyone better off?
I don’t know about you, but that looks to me almost like a chant: “How much did you do? How well did you do it? Is anyone better off? Show us the numbers!” The beauty is that it is stated so anyone can understand while simultaneously aligning with a nationally accepted performance management framework.
What if local activists, local media, individuals and community groups consistently asked these questions of government staff, elected officials, university administrators, local anchor employers, any institution who claims a role in improving outcomes for the community through its programs? Could it eventually just be a given that these questions must be answered for any program or initiative? Could it just become an integral part of our local culture?
Perhaps it’s a silly thought, but I’m having trouble letting it go. What do you think?
The idea of data-driven decision-making and its potential benefits is hardly new, nor is awareness of its dystopian potential. What is new today is the explosion of data being collected as a result of conversion to digital systems and the technological capacity available to process and learn from that data. New industries are being built on these capabilities and existing ones are being transformed, including politics and government.
These changes areexciting. We have the opportunity to use data to drive positive change, increase transparency, and achieve greater accountability in ways that have never been possible in the past. We should seize that opportunity.
But these changes are also dangerous. As we grapple with the ways social networking data are used to manipulate politics and civic discourse, we are also plagued by cases of data-driven decision-making gone wrong, from predictive policing software that simply automates the system’s existing biases to databases of gang members or debtors that devastate people’s lives on the basis of demonstrably inaccurate information. Too often we run well ahead of our capacity to safely manage and use the data we collect.
This is not just a national issue. It is also very much a local one. As cities pursue dreams of becoming “smart;” as police are tempted by the promise of automating hard, dangerous or costly parts of their jobs; as cities implement new practices in performance management and accountability, both the good and the bad of this new data-rich world are happening right here in our own communities and it is here that we must grapple with them.
And make no mistake: data is a critical part of the issue, but this is about more than data. In fact, I believe the challenge we face today is nothing less than how to rebuild our democracy for the 21st century. And I believe that any meaningful effort to face that challenge necessarily starts locally.
Indeed, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identifies “local government, that prolific seed of free institutions,” as a critical factor in the formation of the unique institutions of American democracy. It was then and continues to be today.
I should clarify just what is meant here by local government. Obviously the term includes city and county governments, but it is by no means limited to them. It includes the entire ecosystem of individual residents, community groups, governments, media, nonprofits, and businesses that collectively support and engage in local decision-making. A community where governance is limited just to the formal institutions of government is a poor community indeed.
I include the broader community for a very important reason. One of the important lessons learned over the last few decades of community organizing, civic engagement and civic tech is that achieving effective and equitable outcomes for all groups in our communities requires that we proactively and deeply involve all groups in the decision-making that yields those outcomes. That lesson is especially relevant to our ability to safely use data to achieve better and fairer outcomes for Asheville and for our neighbors throughout western North Carolina.
So what does that mean in concrete terms? Obviously that’s not a question I can answer fully in a brief essay, but I would suggest that our work centers on three primary efforts:
I was recently at meeting of NC brigades where we decided to change the name of Code for NC to the Open NC Collaborative. Both names were fine with me, but I share the concern for making the civic tech movement more inclusive and welcoming, and naming is an important part of that.
For just that reason I sometimes wonder whether we should rename Code for Asheville.
But I must admit resistance to the idea. Some of that is a valid concern about losing the brand we have established in our community. And, as a coder, I’m obviously one of those it makes feel included. But I’ve also felt like the narrow interpretation of ‘code’misses something important.
I’d like to take a stab at a broader one.
Code as in Software
The first, most obvious meaning of ‘code’here is a set of instructions to a computer. What we do is more than that, of course, but it acts as a kind of shorthand for the technical part of what Code for Asheville members do in bringing solutions to our communities.
Code in this sense has been a central part of our identity from the beginning.
We use code — our own and others’ — to tackle hard problems in new ways. We partnered with the City of Asheville to create an online, interactive version of their budget, helped homelessness advocates and the local NAACP use data to advocate more effectively for change in the issues they care about, repurposed used laptops to create a computer lab for the homeless, and provided a source of critical information for people rebuilding their lives after encounters with the criminal justice system.
All this is code, one way and another, so yes, we code. But the reason we code is less because we’re coders and more because code is at the heart of a transformation in how the world works. Digital has transformed the world. As people who understand that world, we can be useful in helping our governments and our communities catch up to the changes.
Whether as coders or as users of others’ code, we certainly embrace this sense of ‘code’ in Code for Asheville.
Code as in Law
From the Code of Hammurabi to modern building codes, the word ‘code’ can also stand for the rules, laws and conventions that guide and constrain action and opportunity in our communities. When Code for Asheville successfully advocated for an open data policy, passed by the Asheville City Council in October of 2015, we were clearly engaged in this broader sense of ‘coding’.
But our advocacy for a change in the coding of society is much deeper than just getting laws changed.
When we collect and refurbish old laptops to create a computer lab for the homeless community and then begin teaching them how to maintain it themselves, we help bring to reality our vision that everyone participates in the new ways of doing things.
When our members teach community groups to use public data to claim a more active, collaborative role in tackling our community’s issues we are helping all the stakeholders explore a new relationship and balance of power between government and governed that is enabled by technology.
When we work with Code for Greensboro to turn our local reentry resources hub into a resource for every county in the state, we are leveraging the energy of local communities and the power of technology to create solutions that serve a larger community to which we all belong. That action not only brings a specific solution to a specific problem, but also builds new patterns of collaboration that we can build on.
In short, Code for Asheville is working not just to change not just laws, but also the unwritten rules about how things work and how things get done.
This role as re-coders of society is also what we claim in our name.
Code as in Code of Honor
Finally, there is the sense of ‘code’ as a set of principles to live by. This is the meaning that prompted me to write this essay.
I see Code for America brigades as a movement built on a moral code. We embrace the notion of government of the people, by the people, for the people and we understand that it means government becomes our personal responsibility — nobody is coming to save us. Ours is a code of showing up and doing the work.
Yes, we are about technology and yes, we act to change the ways our communities work, but this is the meaning I want us to claim most strongly. For me, more than anything else, this moral commitment to doing our part is what the ‘code’ in Code for Asheville stands for. It is this meaning of ‘code’ that every member of Code for Asheville, technical or not, can claim and proclaim with pride.
I was on a panel yesterday at the Code for Durham Civic Spark Day with a couple awesome co-panelists, Noel Isama from Sunlight Foundation and Erin Parish from the City of Durham. We had a great conversation and a lot of fun with each other and with a delightfully engaged and energetic crowd.
Moderator Sam McClenney prepared fall-back questions in case the audience turned out to be bashful. Unsurprisingly, the audience did not and we never got to them, which is exactly what should happen. Nevertheless I was a little disappointed because one question crystallized something for me:
What’s a key philosophy, quote or lesson that guides you in your daily life, as you work to be an advocate for positive change?
A couple well-known quotes immediately leapt to mind and they would have been fine. But as soon as they occurred to me, I also realized that, while inspiring, they don’t actually drive or guide me daily. And as soon as I thought that, I thought of the words that do. You might have heard them before:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. John 13:34
The tradition out of which that quote comes is deeply important to me, but I don’t need it to be important to anyone else. What is important is what it actually means.
Figuring that out will undoubtedly take the rest of my life, but I think I’ve figured out some key elements. And in the work I do now, I think I know the most important one.
In early 2014 I had recovered a bit from my previous job and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew is that I wanted to put my energy into making a positive difference.
I’d already stumbled into Code for Asheville, but hadn’t yet realized where that would lead. In fact, I was surprised to find my path seemingly heading toward journalism (in retrospect, with the strong intersection between the goals of civic journalism and civic tech, I’m no longer surprised).
As part of a ploy to set up a conversation with Jay Rosen of NYU, I wrote a post reviewing a book that expressed “doubt … over the prospects of an informed citizenry for the digital age.” Using the same data as the authors, I proposed a different framing of citizens’ behavior, one grounded in respect for their challenges and their creativity in overcoming them and leading to quite different conclusions about how journalists might respond.
A couple months later I’d landed squarely in the civic tech movement and was well on my way down the slippery slope that now has me working as a government bureaucrat :). And I realized that the story news producers tell about their readers has a perfect parallel in how we talk about citizens in a democracy, so I wrote about that too.
Go inside the walls of any city hall and you will find similar narratives.
If I had to name one thing that we in public service need to do to transform how local government works, it would be to change that narrative. And the only way to truly change the narrative is to change the underlying relationship that gives rise to it from one that ranges between condescension and disdain to one of deep respect.
For me, that’s what that quote is about: allowing ourselves to undergo a radical shift in relationship with our fellow human beings. Some days I do that really well, some days I do it pretty badly, but it remains my primary guide.
My recent post on shared data systems in the City of Asheville, NC introduced the idea that adding a dataset to our management and reporting repository is also a chance to be more proactive about how we manage that dataset. It’s an opportunity to decide exactly how to represent and document the data, who should have access to it, and how we keep it up-to-date. This is obviously a good idea — it only remains to figure out how.
Not surprisingly, that how turns out to be a challenge. Fortuitously, the day after I published the post, open data leader Andrew Nicklin of the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence wrote that “the most important step you can take [to address data quality problems] is starting to treat your data like a strategic asset.” That idea — treating data as a strategic asset — turns out to provide a helpful foundation for figuring out how to realize our vision.
What makes data strategic?
Treating data like a strategic asset sounds great, but what does it actually mean? More fundamentally, just what makes a particular set of data “strategic”?
Internally it seems straightforward that the strategic value of a dataset should be tied to its ability to measure performance and to support decision-making in areas that the organization deems strategic. Externally, I believe the value of data is best measured by its ability to empower entrepreneurial activity for economic gain and improved civic engagement, something explicitly called out in many open data policies, including ours. Briefly, then, we may say data is strategic if:
It is used to improve decision-making that influences outcomes tied to strategic goals;
It is used by external actors to create economic or social value for the community.
What’s striking about those definitions is what they share: use. It is the use of the data that makes it strategic (or not). Thus, our approach centers on use and users.
Cultivating and empowering data users
If the strategic value of data lies in its use, then data with no users obviously can’t be strategic. Perhaps then we should avoid adding a dataset until a compelling use and set of users are identified?
That’s certainly an option, but we believe treating data as a strategic asset aligns better with the proactive approach proposed in the recent GovLab/Omidyar Network report on open data impact, which recommends that governments “take steps to increase the capacity of public and private actors to make meaningful use of open data”. Their recommendation pertains to external users of open data, but it applies equally well to internal users. The key is to create a relationship with data users and to actively support and expand their ability to make effective use of data.
Our work in this area is just beginning, but we are experimenting with several ideas:
Talk about it. Every chance we get we talk up our efforts to make data easier to access and use. What’s gratifying is that word has begun to spread: people are starting to come to us to talk about opportunities they see to use data to manage performance and and to communicate and collaborate with citizens.
Give users ways to tell us what they’re interested in. The new version of SimpliCity will let people subscribe to specific topics and datasets so that we can reach out to them when changes are in the works or to get user feedback on what we’re providing. We are also launching a new public records request portal that not only lets citizens access data from prior requests, but gives us a better window into the kinds of data that people are interested in.
Identify and connect with key data users in the community. We plan to hold outreach events for frequent open data users in the community, such as the local Code for America brigade, news organizations, advocacy groups and professional groups.
Provide ways for users to hold us accountable. There is no better quality-control mechanism than to have active users who depend on the quality of the data, but it is important to communicate clearly what they can expect and to give them an easy way to communicate issues to us. In addition to our efforts above, the infrastructure discussed in the next section will play a vital supporting role in accomplishing this.
Let metadata drive the data infrastructure
Creating relationships and maintaining conversation with users of the data is important, but what about the actual mechanics of maintaining high-quality metadata for our data? No matter how noble our plans and intentions, the minute we have to do something special to keep the metadata up to date is the minute it will begin falling behind.
Our big idea here is to turn the process around. Rather than try to keep metadata in sync with the data, why not let the metadata itself drive the entire data infrastructure? Maintaining metadata and maintaining data then become the same activity.
That’s the idea that powers our new data management system, ComplexCity.* ComplexCity consists of a hierarchy of metadata directories together with a few scripts that use that metadata to create and maintain the data infrastructure. At the highest level, the system has three key design goals:
Provide high-quality metadata to reporting and management data users,
Maintain the integrity of the relationship between reporting and source data,
Maintain the integrity of the relationship between the data and applications that use it.
The system is a work in progress, but currently there are scripts to:
Validate data set definitions against the associated tables in the target and (soon) source databases;
Create ETL jobs that move data from enterprise systems into the reporting warehouse;
Run the ETL jobs, accounting for dependencies between datasets; and
Generate API code and configuration for use in SimpliCity’s GraphQL server.
ComplexCity will also help us better hold ourselves accountable to users of the data through generated dataset dashboards. With the launch of the new version of SimpliCity, each dataset in the system will automatically get a dashboard that includes summary information about the data, quick links to APIs and downloads and, most importantly, all the metadata, including links to contact the data owners about any issues with the dataset. By exposing this metadata to our users, we hope to empower them both to make more effective use of the data and to help us ensure that it is high-quality and serves the needs of the community.
The road ahead
These plans are simple enough to state, but will entail an enormous amount of work in the months (and years) ahead. In carrying out that work, we will undoubtedly discover major gaps in our thinking as well as exciting opportunities to leverage what we’re building for even greater value. We’d love to hear your own ideas and critiques and would love even more to find ways to bring this approach to other local governments.
*The name was initially triggered by a joke — SimpliCity, powered by Complexity — but the more we thought about it, the more it grew on us. There is no getting away from the fact that the data infrastructure of a city is complex. ComplexCity is our approach to managing it.
Photo credit: The image above is Complexity by Mark Skipper.
Note: This post has been cross-published on DigitalSimplicity.io, the City of Asheville IT Services blog.